NanoXplore, the Canadian graphene production company, recently established a European subsidiary and appointed Dr. Francis Nedvidek as its managing director. At the time the firm said that as the “cradle of graphene”, Europe had all the required elements for the industry to blossom.
Following the announcement, we spoke exclusively to Francis Nedvidek to discuss his plans for the future of the company in Europe; the challenge the sector faces evolving beyond its academic roots, and where the major spurts of growth in the graphene market will take place over the next decade.
Would you give us a brief overview of NanoXplore’s current projects and activities?
NanoXplore is currently focused on responding to customer demand to improve existing products, both as additives and as enhanced formed and molded materials. We provide graphene additives for paints, coatings, polymers and lubricants, as well as in thermal management materials.
By enhanced additives, we mean non-powder sales of graphene-enhanced substitutes for existing products such as tapes, textiles, printed materials, adhesives and composites.NanoXplore is also developing some graphene enabled components and subsystems for Lithium-ion batteries, solar cells, water desalination and wearables.
How would you describe the current state of the graphene market?
The graphene market has changed significantly of late. Two years ago the challenge for end users was to obtain decent material, in volume, at a reasonable price. Today there are several producers, including NanoXplore, producing large volumes of good-quality graphene. Prices per kg for high-quality graphene have fallen during this period from $300,000 to $30,000 per kg and are set to fall to $5,000 per kg over the next five years.
Here I’m talking about high-quality, low-defect, functionalized, such as graphene nanoplatelets or flakes produced outside of China.
What challenges do you think the industry now faces?
There are two significant challenges for current graphene producers trying to incorporate graphene as an additive into real-world products and processes.
First, many producers come from academic rather than industrial backgrounds. Often their production technology is not easily scalable, they lack an understanding of business-to-business sales processes and the time needed to development a market-ready product, and they struggle with the product introduction concepts.
Secondly, in order for graphene to provide significant benefits to customers at current high price points, the material must be added at very low weight percentages (0.1 to 1 per cent) and must be very well mixed. Defected graphene mixes well but provides little benefit in most applications. Low-defect graphene does not mix well unless the edges are selectively functionalized, but selective functionalization after graphene production (i.e., post-production) increases costs significantly.
In your opinion, what industry will experience the fastest growth in the demand for graphene over the next 5-10 years?
Starting in about 5 years, one can imagine the commercial introduction of novel graphene-enabled subsystems and systems. This category of products will include greatly improved energy systems (e.g., Lithium-ion batteries and solar power systems), thermal storage and management systems, smart textiles, and others.
Solutions for highly regulated industries (e.g., medical, automotive, aerospace) are already being demonstrated and they will start to exit their testing regimes and enter the marketplace.
How important is the European market for NanoXplore? It is more important than the North American market?
Europe is very important. We do not intend to sell a commodity but rather high-quality, custom functionalized graphene, graphene derivatives and other formulations to aid customers to use graphene in their own factories and labs. Graphene was first ‘discovered’ in Europe and Europe has invested much into the Graphene Flagship and other programs aiming to facilitate the commercialization of graphene. Europe already possesses an emerging graphene ecosystem of research bodies, collaboration partners and abundant firms with the global market presence that use our product and will help launch our products and achieve quick growth. The European market is a natural fit for NanoXplore.
North America also is very important of course. It is home to our source of raw graphene and the location of our labs and production facilities – our home base. The North American market is also very large and innovative and very global. However, Canada in particular has excellent ties to international supply chains. For a small company starting out today, there is a need to play both at home, in world markets and engage global industries. The European market is a natural fit for NanoXplore.
In the coming decade, which geographical region in your opinion will have the highest growth in the graphene market?
For the next 5 to 10 years, I expect North America, Western Europe and certain countries in Asia (i.e., South Korea and Japan) to have the highest growth rates.
When do you think that graphene-based products will hit the market? What will be the first products?
There have been a few successes already, notably graphene inks and drilling fluids, but the next 5 years will see graphene introduced into a broad range of products including paints, lubricants and polymers.
Graphene will likely enter the supply chain for these materials as an additive, representing less than 1 per cent weight of the end material. Even so, as these end products are sold in many millions of tonnes per year, the volume of graphene required for these categories will be huge.
Graphene additives for paints (including coatings), lubricants and polymers will provide enhanced mechanical properties (strength, flexibility, ductility), electrical and thermal conductivity, and improved surface and barrier properties. One of graphene’s major advantages is that it can offer multiple enhancements simultaneously, potentially replacing cocktails of existing but more expensive and toxic additives.
What kinds of applications are being targeted for your graphene-based materials? Can you tell us what differentiates your materials?
NanoXplore produces 4 high-quality graphene powders, 2 unique products (a graphene-graphite composite and unique graphene product called GPO that mixes well with both water and organic based solvents), as well as a number of composites and special formulations.
Our products are highly mixable, possess very few defects, and have physical dimensions tunable between 100 nanometers and 10 microns over 2 to 5 layers. These factors are critical to obtaining the best thermal and electrical properties while simultaneously improving structural properties, and improving barrier and surface finish characteristics.
Based upon our material properties and expertise in dispersion, we enable customers to add the minimum of graphene to existing products while deriving the maximum benefit. We have demonstrated significant improvements across a broad spectrum of paints, coatings, polymers and lubricants, as well as in thermal management materials.
Can you tell us where your company stands in terms of commercialization readiness?
We have been selling graphene-based materials for the last year and our current capacity is 3 tonnes per year. Our products have been fully characterized and international research collaborators and numerous customers have validated their quality.